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China\'s new silk road (part 2)

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10 March 2011 13:59

Roger Irvine is writing a PhD on China's future at the University of Adelaide. He spent most of 2010 conducting research at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Part one of this series here.

High-speed trains require track that is as straight as feasible and highly stable. A high proportion of that track is elevated on giant concrete pillars, which have become a part of China's modern landscape almost as ubiquitous as its new 'national bird' – the mechanical crane. They are often several tens of metres high, sweeping across whatever topography they encounter; this goes some way towards explaining why China's cement production is many times that of any other country in the world.

Wherever mountains present an obstacle, tunneling is employed, and wherever rivers are encountered huge bridges are constructed. The Guangzhou-Wuhan line reportedly has 226 tunnels with a combined length of 177km, and 684 bridges with a combined length of 468km. The new double-tracked 27.8km tunnel through the Taihang mountain range now connects previously isolated Shanxi province with its populous eastern neighbours.

Major bridges for the new high-speed network include the 4.6km Tianxingzhou bridge across the Yangzi River at Wuhan, which is claimed to be the biggest and widest railway-highway bridge in the world, and the 1.6km Dashengguan bridge across the Yangzi at Nanjing, which is described as the world's first six-lane railway bridge. The Zhengzhou-Xian line includes a section of almost 80km of elevated track, said to be the world's longest bridge. 

Another massive undertaking is the construction of over thirty new and ultra-modern main railway stations, with a combined floor space approaching 5 million sqm. These include spectacular new structures in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Changsha, Xian, Tianjin, Nanjing, Fuzhou, Xiamen and elsewhere, which make many of China's airports look modest by comparison.

Then there are the trains themselves. As in many other sectors, China has been able to exploit the leverage resulting from the eagerness of foreign companies to enter its huge and lucrative market to persuade them, after considerable resistance, to transfer technology as well as manufacturing capability. Beginning about 2004, China licensed technology and equipment from all four major international train manufacturers. The Ministry of Railways has denied China forced foreign companies to transfer technology and says China contributed by innovating and improving these technologies.

Trains developed in China are now breaking rail speed records. Non-stop commercial trains between Guangzhou and Wuhan average 313kph, reportedly well in excess of the world's previous fastest commercial train, France's TGV. A new generation train is being deployed that will be capable of running at up to 380kph on the Beijing-Shanghai line. The Ministry of Railways has revealed it is developing technology to permit average operational speeds of 400 to 500 kph, and that it has begun development of new 'super-speed' railway technology to enable average speeds over 500 kph. This would shatter previous conceptions of the limits of high-speed rail.

Fears of foreign companies that China will compete with them in international markets are well-founded. China has already declared its intention to export its rail technology and expertise and it seems likely to be very competitive. Reportedly it has already begun building high-speed rail routes in Turkey, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Negotiations with the US, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa are also reported. China has recently signed a framework agreement with General Electric for a joint venture to manufacture high-speed trains in the US.

The Ministry's chief planner, Zheng Jian, asserts China has advantages in two areas: 'We have mastered a full set of technologies, and have the advantage in construction time and cost'. This claim has been corroborated by John Scales at the World Bank, who has observed: 'These guys are engineering driven – they know how to build fast, build cheaply and do a good job'. Costs per kilometre of high-speed rail construction in China, and of train manufacturing, are much lower than elsewhere.

Even more grandiose plans are being promoted to link China's railway network to cities as far-flung as London, Berlin, Moscow, New Delhi and Singapore. One route might connect Kunming in China's southwest with Singapore; another could link Urumqi to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and possibly extend to Germany; a third could cross Russia from China's northeast.

China is offering to provide technology, equipment and trains, and even construction costs for countries willing to supply natural resources. Myanmar has reportedly confirmed that a 1920km line from Kunming to Yangon will be starting construction soon. Laos says a line to Vientiane may start construction in 2012. Agreements with Iran, Vietnam and Thailand also appear to be progressing. There have even been proposals for a high-speed link under the Taiwan Strait, although cost considerations and Taiwanese political reservations make it unlikely this will proceed.

Doubts and criticisms of China's rail expansion are emerging. More on that in my next post.

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